(c) Tigon Films
We’re less than seven months away from the referendum on Scottish independence and as Westminster-based politicians try to ramp up the threats (“You can’t keep the pound!”) and ramp up the guilt (“You’re dishonouring all those Scottish soldiers who died fighting for Britain!”) regarding what’d happen if people north of the border voted for independence, I find myself hoping more and more that independence will happen. After all, when the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the Daily Mail urge me to do something, my gut instinct is to do the opposite.
However, there’s one thing at least that still makes me feel proud to be British. That’s the cultural phenomenon known as ‘the British horror film’, a body of movies – a body of art – that’s fascinated me since I started watching late-night television when I was eleven or twelve years old. Still now, I only have to stumble across an old Hammer horror film whilst channel-surfing and immediately God Save the Queen plays in my ears and a patriotic love of all things red, white and blue rises in my heart. Indeed, if the Better Together campaign, which is urging Scots to vote to remain in Great Britain, could get celebrity endorsements from Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Michael Gough, Ingrid Pitt and Linda Hayden (who was the sexy leader of the devil-worshipping cult in 1971’s Blood on Satan’s Claw), I would probably switch my allegiance from the ‘yes to independence’ camp to the ‘no’ one. However, as all those people are now dead, apart from the delectable Ms Hayden, that won’t happen.
According to recent newspaper reports, the British film industry generally is in dire straits – again – but somehow new British horror movies still surface. They barely or never get shown inside a cinema, but they turn up on DVD and, after a while, get a couple of airings on the Horror Channel on Freeview. Actually, some of them are so bad they don’t deserve the oxygen of publicity offered by a DVD release and the Horror Channel. I tried watching something called Stag Night of the Dead the other evening and now feel I’ve inflicted serious damage on my cerebral cortex.
Anyway, one way or another, I’ve encountered quite a few new (or newish) British horror movies recently and I thought I’d share my thoughts about them.
Let’s get the dross out of the way first. I’d heard a few things about Elfie Hopkins while it was in production in 2011 and it was obviously a vanity project. But seeing as the vanity in question belonged to two people I liked – gruff and dependable character actor Ray Winstone and his daughter Jaime, who a few years ago was good in the Charlie Brooker-scripted zombie TV series Dead Set – I had hopes that it’d be worth watching. I certainly didn’t expect the end product to be as irritating and vacuous as it was.
The story – a family who are secret cannibals move into a posh, rural English community that resembles a Midsomer Murders village and start chomping on their neighbours – is old hat and done with little flair or logic. Also, it’s shocking how annoying Jaime Winstone is in the title role. Think back to the most pretentious, conceited and full-of-bullshit kid whom you were unlucky enough to have in your class at school, the type who made you desperate to leave school, leave home, move somewhere else and hang out with people you actually liked, and you get some measure of her annoyingness here. She’s particularly annoying when she’s (a) stoned, and (b) dealing with her geeky best male friend, whom she insists on calling ‘Parker’ (presumably a reference to Lady Penelope and Thunderbirds) and generally treats like dirt.
Jaime’s formidable Dad pops up as the village butcher halfway through, gives a scary speech (like the one Robert Shaw gave in Jaws) and disappears again. But from that you can probably work out how the film will end.
I wasn’t impressed either by 2012’s Community, the tale of two filmmakers venturing into a rundown Shameless / Benefits Street-type housing estate where a super-powerful type of cannabis is being cultivated and sold to the locals, with unfortunate results. (The cannabis plants also need a particular type of compost. Guess what that is.) The filmmakers soon find themselves under assault by hoodie-wearing youths who behave like mad dogs. Meanwhile, the person orchestrating the mayhem proves to be a sinister transsexual. So we have housing estates, hoodies and transsexuals being negatively stereotyped. It’s as if a reactionary, Daily Mail-type hate-list had been transposed to celluloid.
I know that by its nature – exploring people’s fears – horror fiction and horror films run the risk of appearing reactionary. This goes right back to the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which tapped into common worries about foreigners, promiscuity and ladies getting too sexually liberated. But I find these recent hoodie-horror movies (see also Eden Lake, F and Citadel) more and more annoying. It feels increasingly facile of such films to use contemporary fears about a broken Britain populated by feral kids, hence demonising all kids from deprived backgrounds, as the source for their monsters and villains.
My other beef with Community is that it’s not very good.
And I didn’t much like 2012’s Sawney – Flesh of Man. This modernises the old story of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean and his inbred family. According to legend – or more accurately, according to English propaganda, because in medieval times England and Scotland didn’t get along and it was common for both sides to tell tales that blackened the other’s character – the Beans lived in a cave and devoured hundreds of hapless passing travellers. Sawney – Flesh of Man would have you believe that a remnant of the Bean clan has survived in the 21st-century Scottish Highlands. They still live in a cave and still eat human flesh. Mind you, the cave has been updated and has all the accoutrements necessary for a modern-day cannibal / torture porn lifestyle: chairs with shackles, dissection benches, super-powerful blenders, etc.
These Beans consist of the clan-leader, played by David Hayman, who when food stocks run low nips across to Aberdeen and abducts unfortunate late-night revellers in a fake black taxicab; his brother, an outwardly respectable type who’s infiltrated the establishment, like Matt Damon did in The Departed, and is presumably doing his best to cover up the murders – being reared in a blood-drenched cave is apparently no barrier to getting through college and getting a decent job; a rabid she-monster shut away in the cave’s depths; a mute dwarf; and two hyperactive lads who tear around the Highland landscapes like a pair of wolves, wearing hoodies. It’s indicative of the film’s lack of imagination that the best it can do for one-third of the cannibal clan is to depict them as hoodie-wearing psychos. Again.
There are some fetching shots of the Scottish Highlands, but to be honest a director would have to be blind, and have a malfunctioning camera, to shoot a film in the Highlands and not make the place look fetching. It might be unintentional, but Sawney – Flesh of Man gives the impression that it was filmed as a Hollywood calling-card by its director, a sort of ‘Look what I can do!’ movie made by someone with little interest in his material but who wants one day to be making Transporter films, or Fast and Furious films, or whatever.
However, Sawney – Flesh of Man at least has one thing in its favour, which is a great performance from David Hayman as the demented, evil and relentlessly Bible-quoting head cannibal. Hayman was also in John Landis’s Burke and Hare a few years ago, so evidently he’s working his way through all of Scotland’s great horror / monster tropes. Let’s hope someone gives him a role soon in a movie about the Loch Ness Monster.
Also striking is the scenery, this time of rural northern England, in the 2012 zombie movie Before Dawn. In fact, I suspect this is the first zombie movie to use this rugged and beautiful part of Britain as its setting since Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, made all the way back in 1973. The director and star of Before Dawn is Dominic Brunt, whose day job is playing Paddy the Vet in ITV’s countryside soap opera Emmerdale.
Poor old Brunt has been criticised in some quarters for pacing Before Dawn too slowly and not putting enough zombies in it. But actually, that’s why I liked Before Dawn. It’s more interested in its central characters, a thirty-something couple whose marriage has fractured and is barely holding together. They go for an away-from-it-all weekend in a remote holiday cottage and, gradually, discover that a zombie apocalypse is unfolding around them. I thought Brunt was particularly good as the big, slightly-gormless but well-meaning husband who knows he has f**ked up badly in the past but is now desperate to make amends. By the time he cottons onto the danger, unfortunately, his wife has received a zombie-bite and is transforming. For the most part, little is seen of the zombies and the film’s horror comes from its character dynamics. This is particularly so when the distraught Brunt hears that the zombies might – might – regain some of their humanity if they’re fed human flesh.
(c) Mitchell-Brunt Films
Before Dawn isn’t brilliant. The cottage’s phone signal seems to waver on and off according to the demands of the plot at the time, and one of the few zombie-attack sequences that the film does contain is allowed to go on far too long, so that it becomes a bit daft. However, the overall effect is impressive. Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that if a zombie apocalypse really happened, the vast majority of people would behave in the way that Brunt does, panicked, uninformed, unable to set emotion aside when dealing with infected loved ones. There wouldn’t be any of the head-blasting, sawn-off shotgun action typical of most zombie films. Anyway, I wouldn’t be upset if Dominic Brunt gave up the day job and did more stuff like this.
Similarly low-key is the serial-killer movie Tony, which was made in 2009 and so doesn’t really qualify as a ‘recent’ horror film at all – but I thought I’d mention it here. Tony is clearly inspired by real-life killer Dennis Nielson, an unremarkable, rather boring bloke who did away with some 15 people and kept their bodies in his house because he wanted somebody to talk to. Come to think of it, someone who talks to corpses must be very boring indeed.
Tony is relentlessly depressing – in its depiction of a shabby, rundown London, its depiction of Tony’s victims (aggressive smack-heads, desperate rent-boys, a TV licence man who comes to confiscate Tony’s television and gets throttled with a cable), and its depiction of Tony himself. Tony is not the superhuman, super-intelligent, Nietzschean serial killer beloved by Hollywood movies. He’s a hapless, luckless squib of a human being, sporting glasses with lenses like bottle-bottoms and a greasy black smear of hair. In fact, he’s reminiscent of a serial killer who appeared back at the beginning of British horror-movie history, the one in 1960’s Cover Girl Killer, who was played by the late, great Harry H. Corbett.
Tony has some icky moments but what’s more unsettling about it is how it manages to elicit some sympathy for its central character. He’s bullied by the many assholes who inhabit the world around him – he may be the worst predator, but he’s certainly not the only predator on view. Also, he shows an occasional sliver of humanity, such as when he allows the least obnoxious smackhead to go free.
Another reason why I’ll give Tony the thumbs-up is its wistful music, which is supplied by that great 1980s indie band, The The. (The film’s director, Gerald Johnson, is apparently the brother of The The’s main-man, Matt Johnson.) Here’s a taste of it:
Stand by for more ‘recent British horror movies’ shortly.